Nov. 12, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Your views on evolution education: The voting booth isn't the only place where the "faith and values" debate is playing out. It's also stirring controversy in classrooms and courtrooms, pitting Darwinians against their doubters.

In Georgia's Cobb County , the school board's decision to include stickers in science textbooks insisting that Darwinian evolution is a "theory, not a fact" has come under federal court challenge. In Pennsylvania's Dover Area School District , intelligent-design theory gets its due as well as standard evolutionary theory.

Some of Darwin's chief challengers, such as the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, would argue that the debate isn't about religion but about rigorous scholarship. But those on the other side, such as the National Center for Science Education, would say intelligent design is nothing more than creationism in scientific clothing.

We've addressed the evolution debate in Cosmic Log since, oh, Day 2 of its existence — and over the years, the Talk.Origins Archive has become my favorite resource on the subject.  The Web site's name goes back to the heyday of Usenet, but it's regularly updated and in fact has grown a new evolutionary branch called TalkDesign.org, focusing on the intelligent-design issue.

This month's National Geographic also weighs in with a cover story titled "Was Darwin Wrong?" The excerpt that's been posted online addresses the semantic silliness over "theory vs. fact" right up front, but you might want to read the whole darn thing on paper. (Besides, they have a cool "World Map" insert.)

As always, I've received a virtual bagful of e-mail sparked by the Georgia controversy as well as our Live Vote about evolution and education. Here's a sampling of the feedback:

Wind Chapman: "I first moved to Georgia in January of 2004. I had heard that Georgia had a teaching shortage, and after several years in West Virginia where teachers were getting laid off, I moved to what appeared 'green pastures.'  I have a teaching degree and a science degree.  It seemed a sure bet that I could find work here.

"The first job I applied for looked very promising. However, during my second interview, the principal donned a 'friendly conspiratorial' look and asked me if I would teach creation theory as well as evolution. I politely explained that I have been a serious student of mythology for years and that I did not know of a single creation theory that had any basis in scientific fact. I added that I could teach creation theories in social-studies classes when the class was exploring certain cultures.

"He then exchanged a 'disgusted' look with a co-interviewer. I was coolly thanked for my time and told that I would be informed of my decision. A month later, I received a form rejection letter.

"I decided that the state of Georgia did not wish to truly educate its children. It only wanted to reinforce the baseless rhetoric that is being spouted in fundamentalist gatherings. While the rest of the nation advances its children, Georgia will teach modern skills such as flint knapping and how to avoid taking responsibility by blaming the condition for the human race on a devil. I should expect no less from the last state in the union to pass child endangerment laws.

"New England or the Rockies are starting to look much nicer."

Luke W. Erickson: "As a Cobb County resident, professional anthropologist and atheist, I find it amazing that people in modern society are still choosing not to believe that we evolved into what we are now.  Evolution takes place within every aspect of this planet, from humans down to insects.  There is solid unquestionable evidence/proof of this.  I don’t wish to get into a debate over whether god exists or not, but until someone shows me proof that god exists, then I will go with the facts that are proven, that we evolved through time to get to where we are now."

Gary Hedrick, middle-school teacher: "The thing that worries me is if we cannot teach opposing theories on origins, how does this affect the teaching of opposing theories on the origin of the universe, cause of diseases, opposing theories in math, etc."

Dennis D'Inzeo, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico: "Anyone who has looked closely at a chimpanzee's ears or hands must either conclude that evolution is real or that the Creator has an outrageous sense of humor. Perhaps both are true."

Dave Wesner: "As long as we're renaming things, such as calling creationism 'intelligent design,' let's just keep on going. That way we can be all-inclusive in our approach to our children's education. We can teach all the 'theories' of the origins of life, instead of just limiting ourselves to the scientifically valid one (evolution) and popular religious beliefs (creationism). We can also teach the 'theory' that the earth rides on the back of a giant turtle (we can call it 'terrapinism'), and the 'theory' that First Man was excreted from the non-antlered end of Great Stag Beetle ('generative poopation'). Of course, while we're at it, we'll need to rename 'science' classes, too. ... 'And what did you learn today in Regressive De-Education class, son?'"

Ernie Mercer: "That a full 30 percent of people responding to this poll think that alternatives to evolutionary theory (creation 'science') should have equal weight in science textbooks is truly saddening. Teaching our children to doubt one of the world's best-proven scientific theories puts them at a disadvantage when they seek scientific or technical employment. It also puts them at a social disadvantage, inviting ridicule from those who know better. Would these same people also argue that the theory of the earth as center of the universe be included in science textbooks? After all, the only way to be sure that the earth orbits the sun is to stand on the sun and watch it."

Steve Warren: "I'll allow my secular tax dollars to support the teaching of creationism in public schools as soon as fundamentalist churches begin including material supporting evolution in the Bibles they use in Sunday School."

Becky Smith: "I believe that every science textbook should have a sticker or just a disclaimer printed inside.  No one, whether old or young, should have to believe in a theory.  When I was in school, students were practically forced to believe in evolution. I find it funny that government authorites in Georgia are upset because evolution is called a theory on the sticker. America is so concerned about mixing church and state, yet when it comes to electing a president we vote in the man who spent time talking about God, rather than the man who talks about fixing our economy. Considering the facts, I don't think putting a sticker on a book should be our concern."

Khun So: "Alternatives should be mentioned, but not in equal weight to the evolutionary theory in science textbook.  These alternatives can be mentioned in equal weight if the scientific community greatly supports them (as they do in Darwin’s theory of evolution). I really think religion nowadays interferes in many bad ways for the advancement of peace and human race."

William Bramblett: "What about the most likely scenario ... that God set evolution and natural selection into motion untold centuries ago as 'his' way to assure that 'his' creations had the best chance to survive the ongoing changes on the Earth? Is this really so farfetched?"

Thomas Campbell: "There are no 'alternatives' to the concept of evolution, the change in genetic and morphological makeup of organisms over time. Evolution in the normally educated community has the status of fact, in the same manner that the 'theories' that the earth is round, or that the earth revolves around the sun, are considered facts.  Evolution over time has been as useful in advancing the geological, biological and medical sciences as Einstein's 'theory' of relativity has been to the physical, chemical and cosmological sciences. Where 'alternatives' have a role is at the level of studying the mechanisms by which evolution operates.  Darwin's proposed engine for evolution is 'natural selection.'  The melding of his qualitative ideas with the quantitative concepts of Mendelian genetics has created the powerhouse of concepts that propel all biological and medical developments today, from pharmaceuticals to brain development, to HIV research, and every other such field. ..."

Stuart Rind catalogs questions raised about phenomena ranging from the Big Bang to the geologic record and says: "There is so much overwhelming scientific evidence calling into question the theory of evolution, that the debate does not have to concern itself with teaching alternative views. The real debate should be why is all this scientific evidence being suppressed?"

Nov. 12, 2004 | 8:20 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Great Escape'
The Economist: A step toward 3-D TV
Slashdot: Making holograms in the kitchen
Discovery Channel: 'Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?'

Nov. 11, 2004 | 7:20 p.m. ET
Hubble's lucky find: Have you ever spotted an unexpected sight in the background of one of your vacation snapshots — say, the face of a celebrity or a volcanic eruption? If you did, you'd know how an international team of astronomers felt when they analyzed the pictures they took of the Sagittarius dwarf irregular galaxy.

Video: Hubble's lucky find In this case, the celestial bonus was in the foreground: The trail of a never-before-seen asteroid runs right through the middle of the picture, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys in August 2003.

In the Hubble composite picture, the trail is broken into a dotted line of curving arcs, because the camera's shutter was closed down regularly to transfer each still image into the telescope's computer memory. Why do those arcs curve? That's because of the parallax effect, as explained in today's release from the Space Telescope Science Institute. The apparent motion of the asteroid against the background stars helped scientists figure out exactly how far away the asteroid was.

The asteroid is 169 million miles from Earth — between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter — and based on its brightness, it's thought to be about a mile and a half wide. The brightest stars in the background are in our own Milky Way galaxy, but the faint bluish stars are in the dwarf galaxy, about 3.5 million light-years away. (One light-year equals about 6 trillion miles, the distance a light beam would travel in a year.)

It's rare for stray asteroids to show up on Hubble images, but not unheard of: In fact, an analysis of 28,460 deep-space Hubble pictures turned up 96 asteroids, many of them too faint to be seen by earthly instruments. The research team behind the latest observations, led by Simone Marchi, Yazan Momany and Luigi Bedin of the University of Padua, has published a paper on Hubble's role as an asteroid detector in the October issue of the journal New Astronomy. (PDF file)

For a heaping helping of spectacular sights from Hubble, check out our Space Gallery — and stay tuned for updates on the effort to save Hubble from an early demise. An analysis of NASA's options for post-Columbia servicing of the space telescope is due this month from a National Academy of Sciences committee.

Nov. 11, 2004 | 7:20 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
European Space Agency: Grooviest view of Martian moon
Archaeology magazine's gateway to Alexander the Great
The Guardian: The $3 billion Bush bypass
The Scientific American 50 for 2004

Nov. 10, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Battlefields past and future: Veterans Day — the 11th day of the 11th month — provides an opportunity to reflect on the wars of the past. You can fuel your reflections by clicking through the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, then watch a Webcast of the observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington starting at 1 p.m. ET Thursday.

Meanwhile, in Iraq , U.S. soldiers are hoping that their technological edge can translate into success. One of the best and most up-to-date resources on the technology of warfighting is Defense Tech, maintained by Noah Shachtman. Today, Shachtman announces the launch of Defense Tech 3.0, now published under the aegis of Military.com.

"Readers can expect an expanded roster of news, tidbits, rumors and analysis about the future of national security. We're also setting up a forum, so you can discuss the latest in military technology, defense news and security trends," Shachtman says.

Among this week's top links: Slate's on-the-scene report about "the Watchdogs of Fallujah," a Marine unit that is using camera-equipped robot planes to look out for insurgents on the Iraqi city's streets. The prose reads like a sci-fi novel in the style of "Starship Troopers," but the subject is deadly serious.

There's also an update from Aerospace Daily on the near-space surveillance technology that could be fast-tracked for Iraq. JP Aerospace had been involved in the project, but after the company's Ascender airship was damaged by high winds in Texas, the project was relocated to Oregon, the publication reports.

When the U.S. Air Force Space Battlelab recruited Global Solutions for Science and Learning as a new partner, JP Aerospace reportedly bowed out of the project. A redesigned airship is due to get its first flight tests next May, Aerospace Daily reports.

Nov. 10, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
More of the red and the blue: We discussed the cartography of Bush vs. Kerry maps in an item last week and a follow-up this week — and this Web page at the University of Michigan makes yet another contribution to the research. I really dig the red-blue-purple, population-weighted map, which is now serving as my desktop wallpaper.

Nov. 10, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Prizes for publicity: Contests like the X Prize and the DARPA Grand Challenge have generated so much publicity that some folks are even setting up prizes just for coming up with the publicity. For example, CollectSpace, an online marketplace that specializes in space-related collectibles, has set up a "Challenge: Campaign" giveaway that would award astronaut autographs and mementos to those who develop the best publicity campaigns for its Web site.

Meanwhile, the Center for a New American Dream has posted the rules and submission form for its contest to come up with the best slogan (10 words or less) for fuel-efficient vehicles. Last week I provided a heads-up about this contest, which is offering a 2005 Toyota Prius as the grand prize.

Nov. 10, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Science with a smile on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Trains get fluffy
Univ. of Arizona: Great news for the planet Pluto's fans
Egyptian SIS: New robot to explore pyramid next year
The Onion: More recent prehistoric discoveries

Nov. 9, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Titan's primordial ooze: The black-and-white radar image may look like a static-filled TV screen or an ultrasound snapshot, but scientists say it could well show that something strange is happening on Titan, Saturn's biggest and most mysterious moon.

Image: Feature on Titan
NASA / JPL / SSI
This synthetic aperture radar image of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan was captured on Oct. 26, when the Cassini spacecraft flew 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) above the surface and acquired radar data for the first time. Scientists are intrigued by the bright feature that runs from upper left to lower right.
The image, captured by the Cassini spacecraft during last month's Titan flyby , reveals a bright, drippy-looking feature that just might be an outflow of water-rich material from an ice volcano on the moon's surface, researchers said this week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences in Louisville, Ky.

That's particularly intriguing, because Titan's chilly, hydrocarbon-based surface chemistry is thought to resemble that of early Earth. Perhaps what the scientists are seeing is organic-rich primordial ooze in the making.

Then, again, perhaps that would be a case of jumping to conclusions.

"It may be something that flowed, or it could be something carved by erosion. It's too early to say," Cassini radar team member Ralph Lorenz said in a University of Arizona news release. "But it looks very much like it's something that oozed across the surface. It may be some sort of 'cryovolcanic' flow, an analog to volcanism on Earth that is not molten rock but, at Titan's very cold temperatures, molten ice."

Cassini is due to make observations of Titan as well as the other attractions of the Saturnian system for the next four years, and the first close-up views through the moon's atmospheric haze are already whetting researchers' appetites for more.

"Radar has provided the first evidence for possible young cryovolcanism on Titan's surface," said Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona, another member of the Cassini team. "Now our challenge is to find out what is flowing, how it works, and the implications for Titan's evolution."

Keep up with the daily outflow of imagery from Cassini by checking with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as the Cassini imaging team's Web site and our own "Greatest Hits" slideshow . Today, for example, NASA features a shockingly magenta rendition of Saturn's ring waves.

Nov. 9, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Sexual science on the World Wide Web:
New York Times (reg. req.): Only the brave study sex
New Scientist: Mother's genetic skew linked to gay sons
Wired.com: Cloning ban unlikely to pass Senate
BBC: 'Ovary-arm' transplant a success

Nov. 8, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Lights, camera, action! Observers as far south as Oklahoma saw spectacular northern lights on Sunday night, due to a huge solar outburst over the weekend, and space weather forecasters say the fireworks will probably continue tonight.

Image: LASCO observation of coronal mass ejection
SOHO / NASA / ESA
A blast on the sun sends out a coronal mass ejection, as seen here by a coronagraph aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The bright disk of the sun itself is blocked out by the instrument's black circle in the center.
In fact, tonight might just bring a celestial double-feature, if scientists are correct in predicting an early spurt in this month's Leonid meteor shower. (The main event for Leonid-watchers should come on Nov. 18-19, with the moon in a relatively favorable first-quarter phase. Stay tuned for more as the peak approaches.)

Some skywatchers were armed and ready with cameras when the auroral action swept past Earth's magnetic field this weekend, and you should click on over to SpaceWeather.com for a selection of the best images, plus updates on coming celestial attractions. If you're a total sky-show freak, consider subscribing to the SpaceWeather Phone alert system.

You can also get a fix on space weather from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center, as well as the Web site of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which provides detailed views of the sun and its surroundings from space.

Nov. 8, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Revisiting the visual vote: In response to last week's item about red-blue maps of the presidential vote, my MSNBC.com colleague Will Femia sends along a link to "Essays & Effluvia," which points to a New York Times map that's red and blue and white all over. The speckles of red and blue votes are shaded to reflect population density, and the graphic is probably as good as you can get when it comes to reflecting the GOP-Democratic split on a conventional geographic map. Be sure to check out the other graphics in the Times' interactive on "The Final Tally."

Could you get an even better picture by creating a county-by-county, population-weighted map, as I suggested last week? At least one Cosmic Log correspondent says that's a bad idea:

Joe McCollum, Knoxville, Tenn.: "Oh, please, you do not want to see county-level cartograms. No one would ever recognize them. You'd get a big blob of something — but almost no one would be able to identify it as a map of the USA. You might be able to pick out the boroughs of New York City, as well as Cook County, Ill., and a gigantic Los Angeles County, Calif., on the Pacific, but that's about it. I think even state-level cartograms are hideous, but I can usually figure out which polygon is which state, so I tolerate them. This is not to say that population density/voter turnout is unimportant — I think I would use hue to indicate party preference, and maybe saturation to indicate, say, turnout or tabulation."

Nov. 8, 2004 | 6:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Hide and see in the sea
The Guardian: European probe nears the moon
Scientific American: Flawed revelations from Genesis?
NASA: Scientific paper submitted from space

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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